* First senior government to visit Gambia since de Gaulle
* France tries to boost influence in anglophone Africa
* Paris warns Russia over presence in Central Africa (Adds ministers, context, quotes, recasts)
By John Irish
BANJUL/DAKAR, Nov 5 (Reuters) - France flexed its muscles in West Africa on Monday granting millions of euros in aid to Gambia to support its democratic transition amid fears of regional instability and took aim at Russia over its “opportunist” role in Central African Republic.
Born of British and French colonial rivalry in the 19th century and surrounded by francophone Senegal, Gambia - a tourist haven and groundnut producer - won independence from Britain in 1965.
President Adama Barrow won the December 2016 election by beating exiled authoritarian former leader Yahya Jammeh, who fled Gambia after regional militaries launched an operation to remove him.
“What counts is France’s support for a democratic transition without any hidden pretences because there was a dictatorship here that was overturned by the ballot box,” France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters after signing accords in the Gambian capital Banjul.
Le Drian, who was the first senior French official to visit Gambia since a secret trip by then resistance leader Charles de Gaulle in 1943, agreed the first part of a 50 million euros aid package that includes budgetary support, drinking water and agriculture projects.
Paris has major economic interests in neighbouring Senegal and wants to ensure that a rebel movement in the southern Casamance area, separated from the more affluent north by Gambia, does not flare up after Jammeh broke ties with Dakar.
The International Monetary Fund has warned Gambia against any new borrowing after its debt stock reached 130 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year. Financial support from donor countries is crucial as Barrow attempts to reverse many of his predecessor’s most controversial decisions and rehabilitate Gambia’s image abroad.
As part of those efforts, Barrow was given observer status in October to the Francophonie organisation, the French equivalent to Britain’s Commonwealth.
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France is attempting to broaden its influence in Africa to anglophone regions.
Le Drian said Paris was also looking at investment opportunities for its firms, including at Banjul’s port and airport. Companies including Bollore and energy group Total are among those vying for contracts in Gambia.
“If Gambia is a success it sets an example for the region,” said a French diplomatic source.
Paris is also worried about the ongoing instability in its former colony Central African Republic, where it intervened in 2013, and in particular an increased Russian military presence that France believes could undermine peace efforts.
Le Drian on Friday committed some 24 million euros in aid and the delivery of 1,400 assault rifles to local authorities, but warned that CAR could not become a playground for world powers.
Speaking in Dakar on Monday, French Defence Minister Florence Parly took aim at Russia specifically calling on it to play within the multilateral frameworks.
“Any manipulation of opportunist powers would be inept and unworthy. Let us give our full support to the African Union to preserve all chances for a quick and peaceful resolution of the crisis,” she said.
Reporting by John Irish; editing by Janet Lawrence